Vietnam Veteran Rich Hooper Finds Peace on the Trails
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“A friend of mine saw three bears here last week,” Rich Hooper says by way of introducing me to his favorite trail, a steep, rocky loop above his hometown of Basalt, Colorado. He usually runs it alone, but he’s made an exception today, so I huff quietly and do my best to keep up.
“If you see poop with a bit of fur in it, that’s coyote,” he says, slowing down briefly to point out shriveled scat. Noting a broken sage branch a few feet away, he adds, “I see something like this, and wonder what broke it off.” He gazes off into the forest, craning to hear or smell the bear that must have passed this way.
Hooper, 67, is around five-foot-five, with a square jaw, sizeable calves and a sturdy build. His close-cut silvery hair and beard frame leathery wrinkles and gray-blue eyes that sparkle mischievously every time he says something sarcastic, which is often. “Psh,” he’ll say, when someone claims to be too tired, busy or injured to run. “You’re weak. I take no prisoners.”
Hooper served as a sergeant in Vietnam, from 1969 to 1970, and, like many veterans, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. For decades, he had no idea what was wrong with him and no way to deal with it, until he was finally diagnosed in 2009. Four years ago he discovered trail running. Now he is finally learning what it means to be at peace.
“I can think more clearly when I’m on the trails,” says Hooper. He speaks softly, measuring each syllable with precision. “Other times, I just think about nothing. It’s almost like being back in the war again, the way you go down deep inside your own mind, put the pain away, get rid of all your feelings and just go.”
Hooper grew up in Elizabethtown, New York, and was drafted in 1968, when he was 19. After 11 months and six days in the Ia Drang Valley, he returned home with major hearing loss in both ears and type II diabetes, which a study by the National Academy of Sciences would later link to Agent Orange exposure. Worse were the bursts of rage that would seize him at the slightest provocation—a joke that rubbed him the wrong way, a smell, a song. “I was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” he says. “No one understood why I was like that. I didn’t understand why I was like that.”
In reality, Hooper was experiencing PTSD, a condition that would not be named, or recognized as a medical diagnosis, for over a decade. The stress of combat had left him hypersensitive to potential threats, even where there were none. In crowded rooms, he stood with his back against a wall, for fear of someone sneaking up from behind. One morning, his mother tapped him on the shoulder to wake him up, rather than kicking him in the foot as was customary in the military, and he grabbed her by the throat.
Hooper coped by drinking, which fueled his anger and risk taking. He got into fights. He drunkenly drove his Plymouth Hemi Cuda at 140 miles per hour on steep, winding roads. He wandered through the woods and snuck up behind hunters, exhilarated by the thought that they might shoot if he caught them by surprise.
“Friends of mine, guys twice my size, have told me that they were scared of me, because of who I became when I was drunk,” he says now. “It was that bad.”
A path to peace
Despite his struggles, Hooper earned a degree in Outdoor Recreation Education. Over the course of the next 17 years, he moved from New York to Colorado, divorced three times and once tried to commit suicide.
By 2002 he had grown estranged from his 12-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, and become a single parent to his 10-year-old son, Keegan. He was working as a property manager at a chapel in Snowmass, Colorado when he met Houston Cowan, then CEO of Challenge Aspen, a local nonprofit that specializes in recreation for people with disabilities. Cowan invited Hooper to join their annual marathon fundraiser.
“It was clear that Rich was proud of his service,” says Cowan. “But whenever you brought up anything about the military, he would get very quiet. You could tell that whatever had gone on in his past, he was trying to bury it.”
Ramping up from zero miles to a marathon wasn’t easy or painless. Hooper routinely woke up at 4 a.m. to run while his son was still asleep, and by race day he had developed plantar fasciitis.
“It wasn’t difficult,” Hooper says. “I just made up my mind to do it, no excuses.”
Related: Trail Running Helps Returning Veterans
Discovering the trails
In 2012, Dina Belmonte, a Challenge Aspen teammate, introduced Hooper to a trail loop behind her house. “I was, and still am, amazed at his agility and his awareness of everything around him on the trail,” says Belmonte.
But to Hooper, it just made sense.
“I ran some of my first ‘ultras’ in the jungle, wearing cotton fatigues, a long-sleeved shirt, combat boots and a pack full of ammunition that weighed more than I did,” he says. In Vietnam, he navigated with a compass and maps that could be off by several hundred yards—“not an issue until the enemy starts shooting howitzers at your position”—and relied on oddly shaped leaves or fallen branches to remember the path back to base. No one stopped when temperatures soared over 110 degrees and water canteens ran dry, when sunburned blisters burst and soaked their shirts with puss or when a soldier had jungle rot and chunks of flesh were falling off his feet.
For most of his life, Hooper has struggled to maintain interpersonal relationships —“You went [to Vietnam] as an individual, and for the most part you covered your own ass. There was no room for emotion.” But with running as an outlet, he has become happier, more relaxed and more fulfilled—and more social.
He invites other people to run with him and makes sure they are comfortable with the pace and terrain. If someone trips and falls during a race, he stops to help. He spends several hours a week volunteering for Challenge Aspen. He hasn’t relapsed to heavy drinking in seven years. Most importantly, he has reconnected with his daughter. When he ran his first 50-miler, the Grand Mesa 50 in Grand Junction, Colorado, in July 2015, Kaitlyn and her husband came out to crew for him.
While trail running is a far cry from war, Hooper finds it calls upon a similar blend of endurance and adrenaline. “It’s not that I am reliving my war memories when I am out on the trail,” he says. “But being here, pushing my physical and mental limits again, it feels good.”
Ariella Gintzler is the associate editor at Trail Runner magazine.
This article originally appeared in the September issue of Trail Runner magazine. Since publication, Hooper has gotten married and moved, but he still runs, and hopes to complete his first 100-miler before his 70th birthday.
The Veterans in Crisis hotline is a free, confidential resource for those in need of support. Call 1-800-273-8255 or visit https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/